So, for the second time, [the Pharisees]
Summoned the man who had been blind and said:
“Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner.”
“Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,”
The man replied.
“All I know is this:
Once I was blind and now I can see.”
- John IX, 24-26
The New English Bible
Giacobbe “Jake” LaMotta was a professional boxer whose fighting career began in 1941 and lasted over a decade, through 1954. He fought an astonishing 106 professional bouts and posted a record of 83-19 and 4 draws, with 30 knockouts. In 1949 he won the World Middleweight Championship against Marcel Cerdan, and successfully defended his title in two fights, before losing it to Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951.
He was known as “The Bronx Bull”.
His bouts against Robinson are the stuff of boxing lore. The two fought six times over the course of their career. LaMotta only won once, although the outcome of another was a controversial split decision. Their final bout, however, the only title bout amongst their rivalry, was dubbed “The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre”. On February 14th, 1951, Robinson pummeled LaMotta for 13 rounds. The fight was eventually stopped by the referee, TKOing LaMotta. Robinson, however, was unable to knock LaMotta down.
After his retirement, LaMotta led a checkered life. He ran a nightclub in Miami for a period. Riding the popularity of his boxing career, he reportedly dated such stars as Jayne Mansfield and Hedi Lamar. But in 1958 he served six months on a chain gang in Dade County, Florida for corrupting the morals of a minor. And in 1960, he admitted to taking a dive to a Senate subcommittee investigating organized crime’s involvement in boxing. Needing to change professions, he tried his hand at acting, and landed small roles in movies (most notably, “The Hustler”), and appeared in several episodes of “Car 54, Where Are You?” Eventually, he turned to stand-up comedy.
In 1970, he published an autobiography, “Raging Bull: My Story”
In 1973, Robert De Niro was on location in Sicily filming “The Godfather Part II” when he read the book.
He was struck by the character. He felt LaMotta was a primal force. Someone direct and without complications. A tragic hero. He could envision himself playing the role, and began to pursue the project. The next year, he brought it to the attention of his friend, director Martin Scorcese, who was filming “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” at the time.
Scorcese wasn’t interested.
He couldn’t see the allure of a boxing film. The world of professional fighters didn’t make sense for him. He couldn’t latch on to the motivations of two people to step into the ring and beat each other. He wasn’t even a fan of sports. De Niro didn’t give up, however. He kept sporadically bringing the biography up to Scorsese in the following years.
Ironically, it wasn’t until Scorsese was embroiled in a fight of his own that he would embrace the project.
“At first you felt like you could make five films at once. And then you wound up spending four days in bed every week because you were exhausted and your body couldn’t take it.”
In the years immediately following Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese started heavily abusing drugs, primarily cocaine, but also Quaaludes and alcohol in order to balance out. Scorsese has described that time as a two-year abyss from which he was lucky to have come out alive. He was charting a seriously self-destructive course. In August, 1978, while he was attending the Telluride Film Festival, he suffered an overdose. He suffered massive internal bleeding due to a combination of factors; the thin air, unfavorable interactions with his asthma medication and prescription pills he was taking, and the cocaine he was abusing. He nearly died, and needed to be hospitalized.
De Niro visited him in the hospital and tried to help him in his recovery by encouraging him to tackle the project of “Raging Bull”. Scorsese finally saw reason to do the project… he now could see the boxing ring as an allegory for life. He agreed to do the movie for De Niro’s sake, and it became an extremely personal picture for him. Scorsese has claimed De Niro saved his life by getting him back to work. It helped him rehabilitate from drug addiction. Although only in his late 30s, Scorsese, approached “Raging Bull” as if it were the last movie he would ever make.
Not everyone was as enthusiastic, however. United Artists’ studio brass were reluctant to finance the film due to the profanity and violence in the screenplay. Nor were they enthused about Scorsese’s intention to shoot the film in black and white.
Producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler were supportive of the script and of Scorsese’s vision, however, and they had something United Artists wanted very badly. “Rocky II”. “Rocky” had been an enormous financial success, and the sequel (which would hit theatres in 1979) was about to start filming. Chartoff and Winkler used the leverage they had on that movie in order to coerce United artists into backing “Raging Bull”.
On the project was greenlit, it needed to be cast, and there was another pivotal role aside from De Niro’s LaMotta. During his research for his draft of the screenplay (Scorsese and De Niro would complete the final version), Paul Schrader discovered in the archives of a local newspaper that there were two LaMottas… Jake LaMotta had a brother, who he didn’t mention at all in his autobiography. Schrader knew he had an angle for the screenplay.
Joe Pesci began his career in acting as a child. In the 50s, he was a regular on the variety show “Star Time Kids”. He was also a guitarist and singer… He actually released an album in the 60s under the name Joe Ritchie, titled “Little Joe Sure Can Sing”. The album flopped.
He had actually given up acting, and was managing his restaurant in the Bronx when Scorsese and De Niro approached him about the role. De Niro had seen Pesci years earlier in “The Death Collecter”, and thought he would be perfect for the part. He was. Pesci was completely perfect for De Niro’s brother. Similar looking enough, and able to convey the same hotheadness of De Niro’s LaMotta.
In turn, Pesci recommended Frank Vincent and Cathy Moriarty. Scorsese agreed to screen test them both. Moriarty was young, and had never acted, but she had the right look for the role. At her screen test, De Niro tossed her some improv and she responded well. Scorsese decided on her right then.
She more than held her own. She would be nominated for an Academy Award.
Her performance is all the more impressive considering she’s acting against one of the greatest acting performances of all time, turned in by Robert De Niro. Apparently, De Niro was warranted in pushing so hard for the project to get made. It turned into a legendary role.
In order to play LaMotta in his prime, De Niro whipped himself into shape. He worked with the real La Motta for almost an entire year, boxing some 1,000 rounds and packing on 20 pounds of muscle. He learned to mimic La Motta’s fighting style, and actually became a fairly formidable boxer. He had seen too many boxing pictures where the actors didn’t actually look like fighters, and was determined that wouldn’t occur here. He got so good that he won two out of three Middleweight bouts he had under the ring name of “Young LaMotta”.
He famously needed to gain an enormous amount of weight in order to play the older LaMotta. The producers tried to talk him out of it, tried to push him towards using makeup and a fat suit. De Niro insisted. He needed to gain the weight in order to get into the mindset. Thus, production shut down for four months while De Niro went on an eating binge around Europe. When he returned, he had gained 70 pounds. The rest of the film was shot on a rushed schedule, out of concern for his health.
De Niro, of course, wasn’t the only one who put forth a legendary effort. “Raging Bull” is arguably Scorsese’s work as a director.
As opposed to crafting standard boxing scenes, he turns the ring into an artistic arena, showcasing his own skills. The matches he brings to the screen are highly stylized, subjective, operatic dances. A brutal ballet. He takes the violence of the sport, filters it through the camera, and puts onscreen a poem in black and white and blood.
Scorsese story boarded the fight scenes, in order to get the exact shots he wanted. He filmed it differently than other boxing films, using a studio environment whenever possible for maximum control. He used a variety of film techniques to establish mood. In the first fight against Robinson the ring is large and the arena brightly lit, to convey the bright possibilities. Elation. In the final fight against Robinson, he shot with flames just beneath the camera in order to create a mirage effect. Smoke billows as if they’re descending into hell. He uses slow motion, accelerated frame rates, close-ups, zooms, quick editing. He puts on a virtual master class of directorial techniques.
Frank Warner, who did the sound design, did an incredible job as well. For the ring announcers, they used the original broadcast recordings of the fight announcers. He used animal noises at times during the fights for thematic underscoring, and used gunshots within the sounds of flashbulbs going off. Sound effects for punches landing were made by squashing melons and tomatoes. Perhaps the most effective thing he did, however, was to suggest that at certain points they should take the sound away… resulting in silence at key moments. At the end of production, he burned all his effects, so he wouldn’t be tempted to use them again.
The final product is a portrait of a man driven by primal urges. Lust, and anger. Jealousy. He’s inarticulate. Violent. Paranoid. There are unflinching scenes of domestic violence. LaMotta strikes out wildly at everyone in his life, and then is incapable of properly expressing his sorrow afterwards. We’re shown his career trajectory from hungry up-and-comer to unsteady champion. His only redeeming virtue appears to be that he refuses to go down.
Jake LaMotta is a difficult person to empathize with, a man who’s difficult to find sympathy for. His low-class mentality leads him to beat his wife and beat his brother. The anger which propels him to the heights of the sport of boxing leave him woefully ill-equipped for the world outside the ring (in itself a condemnation of the sport).
He’s a brutal, bestial man.
But therein, to me, lies the central virtue of “Raging Bull”. LaMotta is not an animal. He suffers the consequences of a life lived by instinct, and in turn pays the price for his rage and urges, but he does have feelings, he does have a heart and a soul. He weeps. In the cell, he is powerless. He has no one else to hurt, and finally realizes he’s only been hurting himself. At that moment, it’s “I’m not an animal”, that he wails… and he’s not. Even the most irredeemable seeming person is still a human being, even the lowest of the low is a candidate for redemption. Worthy of our compassion.
Whether LaMotta receives his redemption or not is left ambiguous, in my opinion. It’s unclear whether his brother Joey will truly call him and mend fences, or if he was just saying that to try to get away after their chance meeting outside the bodega. I feel that ultimately, “Raging Bull” is a humanizing film, regardless. It challenges us to look upon the despicable, the detestable… and relate. To find the humanity within a character we would much more likely rather discard. Write off as a savage. An animal.
United Artists was unable to campaign for “Raging Bull” for Oscars consideration… at the time, they were in the midst of serious financial difficulties in the wake of “Heaven’s Gate”.
Nonetheless, “Raging Bull” was nominated for 8 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Editing. It won for Best Editing, and won De Niro his second Oscar (his first was for Best Supporting Actor for “The Godfather Part II”). He also won that year’s Golden Globe, and received awards from the New York Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics, and National Board of Review.
On the American Film Institute’s initial “100 Years… 100 Movies” listing, “Raging Bull” ranked #24. Ten years later, with the release of the 10th Anniversary Edition, it had risen all the way to #4, ranking only behind “Citizen Kane”, “The Godfather” and “Casablanca”. They’ve also selected it as the greatest American Sports film.
Sight and Sound (the British Film Institute’s official magazine) has “Raging Bull” #53 on its recently released poll of the greatest films of all time, worldwide.
It’s a challenging move. One with no easy answers. A detailed character study of a person most viewers would rather not examine so closely. It’s one of the finest movies of one of the greatest directors of all time, and one of the most legendary performances by one of the greatest actors of all time. It’s been widely hailed as a masterpiece by both critics and audiences alike.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.